Gov. Tim Walz has appointed Attorney General Keith Ellison to take over a high-profile murder case from Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty, a highly unusual step meant to curb public backlash against a controversial plea deal for two minors suspected of killing a 23-year-old woman during a Brooklyn Park home invasion last fall.

"A prosecutor is a minister of justice, and justice is comprised of both accountability and mercy," Ellison said in a statement. "While I share the belief that too many juveniles are involved in the adult criminal-justice system, accountability for the seriousness of this crime has been missing in this case."

Ellison noted that he requested Moriarty's office refer the prosecution of the case to his office, "but they declined to do so." Moriarty in response called Ellison's decision unprecedented and "deeply troubling."

The decision comes after weeks of mounting pressure by the family of Zaria McKeever, who were outraged by what they viewed as a miscarriage of justice for survivors, especially the 1-year-old daughter McKeever left behind. Ellison criticized Moriarty's handling of the case during a community meeting Wednesday, noting that the sentence proposed for the "shooter in this heinous crime is inappropriate."

Those remarks for the first time placed him publicly at odds with Moriarty — a longtime friend and ally who he enthusiastically endorsed to become Hennepin County's top prosecutor.

In a statement issued Thursday evening, Walz said: "I have absolute confidence in Attorney General Ellison. He has requested this important case and stepped up once again to serve the people of Minnesota. I know Keith will work tirelessly to seek justice and bring a modicum of peace to the grieving family."

Walz called McKeever's family minutes before announcing the news, sending relatives running across the room.

"Our prayers have been answered," said McKeever's stepfather, Paul Greer. "We're thankful, we're hopeful. We believe justice can and will be served now."

Attorneys originally moved to certify the two teenage brothers, ages 15 and 17, as adults so they could stand trial for second-degree murder alongside Erick Haynes, the 22-year-old man suspected of orchestrating the break-in. But in February, Moriarty abruptly changed course, offering the boys a plea deal that would spare them a lengthy adult prison sentence in exchange for their testimony against Haynes.

The older boy, 17-year-old John Kamara, accepted a plea agreement last month that will result in a maximum two-year sentence in a juvenile facility and probation until his 21st birthday. Violating the terms of his probation could immediately trigger a 12-year prison sentence.

The change of direction came as a shock to members of McKeever's family, who sought the harshest possible penalty for teenagers they viewed as equally culpable in the young mother's death. For weeks they've called for Ellison to take over the case.

In a lengthy response to the announcement, Moriarty defended her position that keeping both teens in the juvenile system and holding an adult sentence over their heads provided the best chance at rehabilitation and, ultimately, protecting long-term public safety.

"We must do everything in our power to reach what we think is a just outcome. Not everyone will agree what that is, but the people of this county elected me to make that final and difficult call," Moriarty said, while strongly condemning Ellison's decision.

"Inserting himself in these cases simply because he disagrees with the choice I was elected to make is deeply troubling and should alarm prosecutors across the state. This decision undermines the longstanding constitutional authority, autonomy, and responsibility of elected prosecutors. It threatens the very core of a local prosecutor's well-settled discretion and role as an elected official accountable to the people to prosecute crime in the county."

The accused shooter, now 16, is expected to appear in court for his plea hearing Friday. It's not immediately clear how the announcement may affect pending proceedings, but the state may move to delay that hearing until a later date.

Members of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association unanimously voted last month in favor of a resolution urging Ellison not to ask Walz to exercise his statutory authority to intervene in the case.

The board's decision was largely based on fear of setting a precedent that would allow state officials to take over their cases whenever they disagreed, according to two sources with knowledge of the proceedings.

In a statement to the media hours before Walz made his decision, executive director Robert Small acknowledged that his association respects the governor's right to make that call but believes that "when a county attorney is actively prosecuting a case and exercising the decision-making authority for which the county attorney was elected, the governor should not choose to exercise that statutory authority."

It's exceptionally rare for the attorney general to take a case from any county attorney, which can only be done at the request of the county attorney or if the governor steps in.

Typically, cases only change hands like this when they involve police killings. Ellison took over ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's prosecution for the killing of George Floyd at the request of Moriarty's predecessor. He also handled the prosecution ex-Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter in the shooting death of Daunte Wright.

A governor has stepped in once in modern history to request the attorney general take over prosecution from a county attorney, in a criminal sexual conduct case in Crow Wing County in the 1990s.

The attorney general mostly handles civil matters, but Ellison has been requesting more funding from the Legislature to beef up his criminal enforcement team.

Walz recently signed a bill providing $269,000 in 2023 and $2 million each year thereafter to hire seven additional full-time criminal prosecutors and two legal assistants who will provide needed legal services to rural county attorneys to prosecute serious violent crimes.

During a community gathering Wednesday inside the Shiloh Temple in north Minneapolis to discuss the ongoing prosecution, religious and community leaders joined McKeever's relatives in condemning Moriarty's handling of the case, as well as the lack of intervention by state officials.

Greer, McKeever's stepfather, wondered aloud whether the outcome might be different if McKeever had been related to someone in law enforcement, or had a different skin tone.

"Make no mistake about it — it was an execution," Greer said of the killing. "[He] stood over her body and put five bullets in her, with a 1-year-old left behind."